Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Egg For Breakfast

An article, Is an Egg for Breakfast Worth This?, by Nicholas D. Kristof in last week's New York Times got me thinking about eggs again. Eggs have come full circle in my life.  When I was a child living in New Hampshire my grandfather raised chickens and sold the eggs and eventually the chickens when they no longer produced eggs.  I remember going down into the mud floor, brick walled basement of his old New England home and helping to clean, weigh and pack the eggs.

This was slow food production at its extreme. Each egg was hand cleaned then weighed on a single egg scale (actual scale shown in photo at left) to determine its size and then put in the appropriate box.The basement was cool and damp and a wonderful place to escape on a hot afternoon. Also, I sometimes helped collect the eggs in the large roomy hen houses that were near the barn.  These too were pleasant places to be, a world away from the industrial egg production squalor described by Kristof.

Busy with school and then work, I forgot about eggs for a while except to grab the most convenient box when they were on my shopping list.  Later, after Alex and then Chris came along we got back into eggs going to programs at the Massachusetts Audubon's Drumlin Farm.  We hung out in spacious hen house, with large pens with direct links to outside pens.  Compare these pens to the "cages" referred to by Kristof: 2' x 2'.  Federal standards are currently  67 sq in/bird with proposed legislation to increase this to 144 sq in/bird.    (Note: all references square, not cubic inches.)

We welcomed the baby chicks in the spring, collected eggs, weighed eggs, and bought eggs.  They weren't like "store eggs", they came in all sorts of different colors: tan, off white, blueish, greenish, and they tasted so good. Then this ceased to be a family activity and stopping at Drumlin Farm for eggs was out of the way.  I went back to the grocery store but increasingly opted for free-range organic eggs when available.

Last year one of our neighbors whose chickens were producing more eggs than their family could use, started putting a few crates in a cooler in their driveway on Saturday mornings.  These eggs like the Drumlin Farm eggs come in a variety of colors and often a variety of sizes.
This is what the chickens produced this week. More uniform in size than last fall. I'm continually reminded how special really fresh eggs are and how perfectly they poach or fry.  Kristof writes, "Somehow, fried eggs don’t taste so good if you imagine the fetid barn in which they were laid."  Understood.  However, eggs fresh from well cared-for chickens taste amazing." 

A couple years ago Alexandra gave me Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma for Christmas.  It is an excellent read describing the origin/"natural history" of four meals: industrial farmed, big organic, small farm organic, and hunted and gathered.  Kristof's op-ed is about industrial farmed, Drumlin Farm is small farm organic.  When writing about small farm organic eggs, Pollan describes Polyface Farm and Joel Salatin's portable chicken pens and Eggmobile. "Left to their own devices, a confined flock of chickens will eventually destroy any patch of land, by pecking the grass down to its roots and poisoning the soil with its extremely 'hot' or nitrogenous manure.  This is why the typical free-range chicken yard quickly winds up bereft of plant life and hard as brick."*    Eager to see if since I last visited, Drumlin Farm had embraced this concept, I went there last Sunday.  

I was not disappointed.  Drumlin Farm now has its own Egg Mobile (photo left) complete with attractive signage which describes its purpose: "The Drumlin Farm Egg Mobile moves from field to field to give our free range chickens a steady supply of fresh bugs, seeds and grasses to eat.  A healthy diet allows them to produce superior quality eggs while their manure fertilizes the fields."

Another portable chicken house is located in the the field where the sheep and goats graze.  While the chicken houses at Polyface Farm are moved daily, the ones at Drumlin Farm, to the detriment of the grass, appear to be left in place much longer.

The chicken house has been refurbished  and has new graphic displays as  well as a continually accessible (woodenl) egg weighing station for visitors to experiment with.  One display notes "If you're like most Americans you eat 22 dozen eggs each year.  The majority of eggs come from hens raised in cages.  Only 2-5% come from hens in cage free houses."  One fact on the interactive portion of this display is caged chickens lay an average of 265 eggs per year, cage free, 330. Despite this increased productivity, cage free eggs are considerably more expensive. Kristoph writes: "Industrial operations like Kreider are dazzlingly efficient at producing cheap eggs, so they save consumers money."  The average price of large eggs in the US is under two dollars (~$1.75 - $1.80) while in the area I live local (in-town) cage free eggs run four to six dollars a dozen. Cage free eggs from larger producers tend to be less.** Think about it.  Maybe more oatmeal and maybe fewer but free-range eggs, and your egg for breakfast will be worth it.

*  Page 210

** In 4 local stores I recently checked the lowest price for cage-free eggs ranged from $2.79 to $3.69 a dozen.  Lowest price in some stores is for cage-free but not organic eggs; other stores carry only organic cage-free eggs.  

Reviewed 9/23/2017

1 comment:

  1. Dear Cook's Cache - I work for Mass Audubon, and we were wondering if we might be able to use your photo of the Egg Mobile for one of our publications? If possible, please let me know at your earliest convenience - sarsenault@massaudubon.org. Thank you for your time!